The Power of Context and the Problems of Information.
One of the roughest learning experiences I had growing up was that people don’t judge you based on what you know to be true about yourself. They judge you based on what they think to be true. And true for either party are variants of reality. Rarely do those realities align. Throw in differences in context and imperfect information and you have a real struggle. What does that struggle create? Low salaries. Bad jobs. Few opportunities. And all that trickles into every aspect of your life, where you live, your relationships because it can effect our psyche which effects everything else, but it doesn’t have to be this way. I made many mistakes in this area of my life, and I don’t want you to repeat it. Even if you are past the stage in life where my story takes place, learning this will always be better than not learning, and it doesn’t require any special knowledge, or experience! Just read this and reflect.
On with the story…
As a kid, I was smart. “Calculating our grocery bills in my head with tax before getting to the register at 7 years old” type of smart. I got A’s and B’s with little effort and remember thinking that was fine because I was proficient at any subject taught and capable of quickly learning anything. Being young, not yet judged much by others, I never considered the competition at the higher stages of life and the perceptions others. I was coasting on ability rather than seeking to do my absolute best. I mistakenly thought people would be able to see how smart I was in interviews and other important endeavors of life. Little did I know, my naïve arrogance would prevent me from getting in many rooms in the first place. After many consequences along the journey of my life related to this topic, I’ve put significant thought into something important in society:
The Market for Players
We are all players in a large, never-ending, complex game. How we are chosen, the team we are on, the position we play are all an intricate set of decisions made by people and those people are all competing in the game too. Things become much clearer, if you can see this “Market for Players.”
The film Moneyball was a movie about baseball, but more than that it was a movie about seeing what others don’t in order to find the undervalued “assets” of the world.1 Billy Beane, the General Manager of the Oakland A’s, uses a statistician to build a baseball “team asset” with his desired characteristics rather than buying a bunch of talented “player assets”. This flipped the value proposition of individual players and he was able to create a better team on a smaller budget. Until then, baseball teams were competing for the best all-around players which made their prices sky high. Here’s the clip where Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt) is first learning of the team-based statistical approach from Peter Brand (played by Jonah Hill) .
Eventually, Billy would go on to hire Peter2 from this conversation. Why didn’t Billy just take the approach and use the statistics himself?
Billy judged Peter to be useful to his “team”. The work Peter could do had value and Billy himself didn’t have the background. He hadn’t done the work in statistics, data analysis, computer programming and a number of other subjects needed to understand the fine details. However, Peter didn’t understand player management, contract negotiations, recruiting and a whole host of things that Billy did. Without Billy, Peter would have only had numbers on a page. If you can’t get the players who make your statistics work under contract, your strategy is a non-starter.
These two together create value where there wasn’t prior. Billy seeing this opportunity is more rare than you would think. Most people when going outside their expertise fail at seeing the value of something they don’t understand. Yet, Billy’s alignment of value with Peter’s is what everyone should be seeking. Not to convince others who don’t see you for what you bring, but to find those who do, and stick with them to do things neither of you could do without the other.
If Billy had done some significant amount of statistics in college, perhaps he would have simply thanked Pete for the information and started building his own approach with the information, but he didn’t. More importantly, how was Billy able to see the vision when others were ostracizing Peter for it?
The Power of Context
An important idea is the “Power of Context.” I’ve felt it. You have too. High-energy from working in the right place. Low-energy from bad weather. Calmness from a serene landscape or maybe even a church. Context certainly changes the way we feel, and how we feel changes the way we accept or reject things. The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell has stories and data proving the phenomenon is real.
Billy Beane had a career under two different contexts in Major League Baseball. First as a player, then as an office person. Billy Beane’s approach as a manager changed the game of baseball, however as a player he an outstanding talent who fizzled out and never became a superstar in the baseball world. “Superstar” is a debatable concept, but for me they have quite a few things in common regardless of the game, field or industry. They produce significant results, they come through more often than not when everything is against them, and they generally change the game they are playing.
Billy Beane wasn’t a superstar as a player, but he was as a manager. It’s a different context. Here’s some of the overlap between the contexts between player and manager that I see:
- Both are highly competitive
- High pressure
- Require dedication
Here’s the difference:
- On the field you’re competing with one person at a time, a pitcher and batter for example. In the office, you’re competing with all the other teams for talent.
- A player requires performance over a split-second task like hitting a ball. A manager requires performance over a long-term of good decision-making.
- Skills as a player are the same and require sharp honing. Skills as a manager are diverse and require constant acquisition of new subjects, like statistics for example.
Billy’s brain was perhaps wired for competition, high pressure, and dedication, but not wired for competing head-to-head, being good in a quick moment, and sticking with a few skills. Perhaps he was wired for long-term decision-making and developing ideas, rather than a few specific skills against other people. As a player, he was out of his ideal context and as a manager he was in it.
The “Power of Context” illuminates why Billy was able to see value in Peter’s statistical approach when Peter’s current employer didn’t. Billy and Peter were in a close enough context to each other. Billy had figured out that if they play the game following traditional methods, but on a smaller budget, the Oakland A’s would lose. They would have no advantage. Peter had figured out that in the traditional game, the only advantage was a bigger budget and that statistics flipped valuations on their ear creating a new advantage. When Billy heard Peter’s approach, it overlapped enough with his ideas of needing to do something different that he was able to accept it. Other teams, who were near the top of budget size, but not exactly the Yankees, weren’t in that context, they just thought they needed some “good deals” on players to put themselves on top, so Peter was challenged on his approach.
Here are some ideas I’ve developed that relate to whether an idea will likely be rejected because of context:
- The arguments don’t fit the context of what the evaluator knows.
- Outside the evaluator’s context he can’t verify the efficacy of the ideas.
- The evaluator is not in a dire situation, so there is no need to seek a solution to a problem they don’t perceive.
This is the same reason other teams ostracized Peter because:
- The context of his arguments were outside what they knew.
- They couldn’t verify the idea without destroying their current approach.
- They didn’t need to change from the current system because they weren’t in a dire enough situation. Not as dire as Billy’s tiny budget anyway.
This is all understandable. In fact, it’s the human condition at work. That still doesn’t make it less frustrating when people don’t see the value in what we bring to the table. The only real solution is to change their context somehow to allow them to see more clearly, though even this isn’t always possible because even the information itself doesn’t always tell the true story.
Baseball is heavy on tracking statistics. This made the information Peter needed to help Billy build the best team easily available. On base percentage, home runs, stats for each position, etc. These were all things there was easy access to. Do you think that they key statistics in your job are easily available about you out there?
For some jobs like sales, it might be easier. What about for an engineer? These skills may not even have any sort of system for measuring them in the first place. How does someone who isn’t you, evaluate you?
Below is an image from the Great Depression. People were out of work looking for anybody to hire them. This guy literally put his information on his back. The information tells you he’s got some skills, knows multiple languages, and is looking for work. What are those trades? What are those languages? How much money do you want? No one is a mind reader, but many people get upset when they are undervalued by others who couldn’t possibly have all the facts. Have you ever had that feeling?
The Great Depression was a time in history where, comparatively to today, data was very scarce. If your employer went out of business, you may not even know where a competitor is located to apply there. The guy in the image above was trying to do his best to make the information less scarce. To hopefully bump into someone who could use his skillset.
What if someone valuing you incorrectly doesn’t have the right information about you? How is that rectified? This is the heart of many and, possibly, most issues of being undervalued. We’re not ball players with easily trackable stats. We have personality types, intelligence, emotional ability, infinite skills to choose from, and connections we know. And all of this isn’t written down somewhere where it is tabulated against everyone else.
To share what you know with those you are seeking to be valued from is critical. That’s not always easy and it’s not always as simple as saying “I could do more here.” The person you are talking to may still not be able to see what the “more” is. Most times you’ll need to do the work before getting valued for it. That’s the most surefire way to be “seen.” This is why people who do work that fails, still may get farther than people who don’t try at all. Did you start a solar installation business that failed? You have something to show someone that you brought together installers, marketers, financing, salespeople, and something may have gone wrong, which you can point to as a learning experience. Someone who has always just done their job won’t have that story in their repertoire of “stats”. If someone is looking for a manager, that story may help vs. someone who is looking for “the next step.”
To add to the idea of imperfect information, it’s not just that everything isn’t readily tabulated and it needs to be put down on paper, there are always intangibles too. In Moneyball, Jeremy Giambi was a traditionally good baseball player that many teams didn’t want due to his off-field and locker room antics. Billy and Peter starting with stats only of course picked him up because he was undervalued. Eventually, Jeremy was let go because of these intangible statistics that didn’t make up their mathematical model for winning games. Likely things like morale, seriousness, etc. are all important to a baseball team, but not directly reflected in the measurable statistics. The work you do is filled with these intangibles too. You need to value them at some level to make sure that others do as well. When you’ve never had a late project, do what you say you will, make coworkers bad days better, and so on, you’re working in areas that are had to tabulate the value of. These are important attributes that likely don’t show up as visibly as other types of work because real-life information is full of holes. It’s imperfect. It’s up to you to correct the record, lay out the story and make sure your assumptions of what other people know about you are true. There isn’t a single other person in the world that can do this work for you. It’s your job to do it.
At this point, it’s been laid out that how you are valued is dependent on the market you are in, the context within that market, and the imperfect information available about you. Without all of that coming together, it’s likely you feel undervalued, and is it really any wonder that happens? If any of those things fails, you will be undervalued. Just to give an example of each of these in relationship to pay:
- Market = Restaurant industry, Context = Superstar under big crowd rushes, Information = Good. Likely still can’t be paid much since restaurant industry has notoriously low margins. You’re in the wrong market.
- Market = Finance, Context = Administrator, Information = Good. In this context, for this market, you are likely to be valued less than the client-facing and investment people who are seen as “bringing in the money”. You’re in the wrong context.
- Market = Finance, Context = Junior Client Executive, Information = Poor. You brought in the deal that made the quarter, but the Senior members received the credit. The failure of information to flow up the organization correctly means you are undervalued in what you made happen.
These are made up examples, but illustrate that with just one of these items out of place, your value can be underestimated drastically. Here are three different conclusions that are important for anyone to understand about this:
- Someone who doesn’t see your value isn’t the final authority.
- You should make sure that if you feel you’re undervalued, it’s actually true.
- You can change someone’s life by valuing them correctly.
Let’s delve into these 3 items deeper:
Someone who doesn’t see your value isn’t the final authority.
Back to this guy:
Every person passing that guy on the street didn’t necessarily see value in hiring him. That doesn’t make him worthless. It means that the people passing by weren’t able to extract value from his skillset because of their own context, imperfect information, and the market for workers was an all-time low.
Never confuse this set of circumstances with your own value. Don’t let someone’s lack of trust in you be it your spouse, your family, a friend, or a coworker bring you down. It’s not the truth. It’s their truth, an imperfect idea, based on limited and faulty information. Letting it weigh on you will end in never living your dreams, never seeking to be paid what you’re actually worth, never trying something for yourself that might not work, and never being a person who is worth admiring.
Instead, talk to as many people as you can. Contribute. Show up. Do unique work. Share what you know and let others see what you can bring. A small percentage (likely less than 2%) will value what you do, but that’s all you need. But sometimes even your own context and imperfect information will lead you astray on this. You may think you’re not valued, when in fact you are. So…
…if what you are doing isn’t valued at all…
…first, make sure that’s true.
The end of Moneyball has a great metaphor in it. Billy Beane is feeling down that his statistical methodology of building a team lost the World Series. He thinks everyone in baseball will think his season was a joke, or a fluke. Scared that he didn’t innovate anything, but that he had a lucky season with a subpar group of guys on paper. The metaphor in this clip is beautiful.
In reality, Billy hit it out of the park. The Boston Red Sox owner, John Henry, was captivated by Billy’s approach, and as a team with money, offered $12.5 million to get him. John Henry was the first to recognize the game had been changed. The paradoxical part is that had he not seen that, the game may have still stayed true to tradition, and Billy Beane would have left baseball, but would that have made it not a valuable approach?
In this case, it would still be valuable, it would just be lost. Unrealized because it’s threatening the way of life of everyone who works in the current system that doesn’t have the skillset or the drive to learn the new approach. This is what often holds the world back and what anybody doing something different has to fight. And it is a fight. Just listen to John Henry describe it in the scene below.
The work Billy did for the Oakland A’s took courage, patience and generosity. Courage to do something different. Patience to stick with it an entire season even after a rocky start, and generosity to care enough about the problem the Oakland A‘s has in competing on their budget to try something new to get an advantage. He could have simply done what other managers do, be slightly better than them, point to his lower budget for a reason to not win a World Series, and then continually seek to move to teams with higher budgets, but he didn’t. He looked for a way forward in the circumstances he had. That’s a form of generosity because most others won’t do so. When people like John Henry see that, they recognize it. They reward it.
You may not have an equivalent of John Henry seeking you out to explicitly tell you, “I really admire what you’ve done here.” However, not everyone is so bold and blunt. There may be many people around you that do appreciate what you do. At times, the simplest thing to do is ask, “Is what I do valued here?” “Is my effort appreciated?” If you don’t ask, you may be exacerbating a view of yourself that doesn’t exist, a victim of imperfect information.
Which brings me to a very important final point.
You can change someone’s life by valuing them in a way no one else does.
Below is a clip of Billy Beane going to Scott Hatteburg’s house to recruit him. Scott had the position of catcher his entire career, but due to injury when his contract ran out, no one wanted him. In the intro look at Scott’s expressions. What is his wife doing at the dining table?
Why the emotional tension at the end where Hatteburg embraces his family? It looked to me like this was a lost family. A man whose career had been ended without his input, and they didn’t know the next step. The only value he ever had placed on him was as a catcher in Major League Baseball. He had been written off, and now someone valuing things different than the prevailing wisdom of the game saw his value. We’re all looking for someone who can see what we’re capable of. This gave him purpose again. An income again. A family who likely didn’t feel lost, nor as worried about the future anymore.
We all want someone to see us like this. It’s rare, but what’s less rare is the opportunity we each have to see someone else this way every day. To say, “I appreciate the work you do here,” even if it’s to your spouse. Or to tell your child, “You inspire me,” when the prevailing wisdom is it’s supposed to work the other way. Everywhere is an opportunity to turn value on it’s head and change someone’s life, or at least their feeling about their life.
Other’s judge us through their own lens, based on where they are at in life using the imperfect information available. As a result, rarely does anyone make a “great decision.” Instead, often the “best possible” decision is made, and that may make us feel depressed, rejected, unvalued, and possibly even unloved, but this isn’t reality. The reality is every day is a choice to go find the people, places, and projects that we can bring our best attitudes, valuable skills, and our wisdom to challenge the current philosophies and in doing so make “magic” happen. When we do, we’ll inevitable find the sense of being valued we’ve always been looking for.
- I don’t like calling people “assets”, but in this context that’s what baseball players are to baseball teams. They are the good that creates value.
- Peter Brand was actually Paul DePodesta in real life.
None of this is Right is about seeing opportunities to apply creativity, patience, courage and generosity to improve your life and the lives of those around you. The great part is that it doesn’t require and specialized knowledge or experience. If you can’t see those opportunities, or if a reminder is useful from time to time, subscribing below is valuable. I generally send 1 email a month, so it’s low effort on the inbox management.